The Powerful Use Of Avatars In Social And Emotional Learning

SiLAS is revolutionizing the manner in which professionals teach social skills to their students! SiLAS is providing a fusion between the fields of edtech and social/emotional learning (SEL).   One of the ways we are redefining SEL with edtech is by using SiLAS to teach facial emotion recognition to children with autism. This is done by using 3d avatars and a formalized, step by step, curriculum.

Social (pragmatic) communication disorder (SCD) is a new diagnostic category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5). SCD is characterized by a persistent difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication that cannot be explained by low cognitive ability. Symptoms include difficulty in the acquisition and use of spoken and written language as well as problems with inappropriate responses in conversation. The disorder limits effective communication, social relationships, academic achievement, or occupational performance. Symptoms must be present in early childhood even if they are not recognized until later when speech, language, or communication demands exceed abilities (

Bernadette Mullen

It is critical that educators properly evaluate students with social pragmatic disorders! Standardized testing is a key component of the assessment in terms of planning an appropriate therapeutic program.  Most language assessments focus on concept language and not on social functions or on the interpretation of social language which is needed to assist students with SCD . That’s why, with the help of Bernadette, we built SiLAS to optimize  what we already know about using virtual reality and avatars to teach students with SCD:

  • Virtual reality represents real-life experiences in a safe, controllable manner that allows for repeated practice and exposure (Freyberger, 2017).
  • Virtual reality can be adapted to the current level of the child and develop at different levels, leading to a scaffold learning approach (Cobb, Eastgate, Glover, Kerr, Neale, & Reynard, 2002).
  • The number of cues in the environment can be manipulated (Cobb et al., 2002).
  • There is likelihood of instructor fatigue in traditional programs but not in computerized programs (Freyberger, 2017).
  • Students are motivated to participate and there is a likelihood of generalization .
  • Virtual reality has previously been shown to improve social recognition including affection recognition and TOM in young adults (Kandalaft, M., Didehbani, D., Krawczyk, T., & Chapman, 2013).

SiLAS incorporates the best practices and provides the tools needed to help teach students with SCD how to recognize facial emotions. As Bernadette continues to do work in this promising field, we continue to be committed to keeping SiLAS on the cutting edge by making SiLAS the best it can be!

Silas Solutions: Our Origin Story

Twelve years ago, I started Small Factory Productions, a multimedia and technology studio for kids. Within the first couple months, I noticed that a lot of my students coming to the studio had special needs or were on the spectrum. These students loved the technology and were highly skilled in using it, but needed support when it came to working and interacting with other students and staff. I wondered if there was a way to take their love of technology and use it to improve their social and emotional learning. I reached out to Bernadette Mullen, a speech language pathologist, to run the idea by her. She was in! Together we set out to create a technology-based social skills class.

Our tech-based social skills class became really popular. In the class, students would create characters and write a story about them. Through the writing process, Bernadette would give the characters social problems that they would have to navigate and learn from in the story. Story lines includes topics such as asking good questions, conflict resolution and interrupting. I would then record their voices in a sound booth and animate the story. The process was fun, engaging, and gave students their own social stories to watch, rewatch, and learn from.  After working on these cartoons for 10 years, I won an Emmy for Socially Conscious Cartoons. Additionally, students’ parents and teachers were seeing the students’ socialization improve. After making hundreds of animations, I realized there must have been a better way. After unsuccessfully searching for a solution, Small Factory Innovations was founded and SiLAS was created.

The first version of SiLAS was a downloadable 2D software that only worked on PC. Yet, the company was able to secure research studies with researchers at both Princeton and Kean Universities that showed favorable results. The company applied for an NSF SBIR grant and was awarded the grant in January 2017. After 6 months of development, the new browser-based 3D version of SiLAS was ready for launch.

As we continue on our journey, our team will remain committed to fostering the growth of students’ social skills through the effective use of technology by continually making improvements to SiLAS and researching the most effective learning techniques. Subscribe to our blog to stay up to date with the team and for some interesting tips and tricks on how to facilitate your students social-emotional learning.


Christopher Dudick